Monday, October 31, 2011

Moving Deeper Into Wilderness & Embracing Wildness Wherever We Live by Moderator Bill Sherwonit

Glancing at my first two postings, I realize that I’ve devoted little of my discussion/reflections to the Arctic wilderness itself. Why have some called the Brooks Range our continent’s “ultimate mountains”? And what qualities make the Central Brooks Range and Gates of the Arctic National Park particularly alluring to me (and others)?

For starters, the Brooks Range’s far-north and remote location and harsh climate have made these mountains among the most lightly touched by humans. For most of human history they’ve largely been beyond the reach of people, except for the hardiest of explorers and treasure seekers and even hardier indigenous tribes. And since 1980, this wide sweep of mountains – which stretch 700 miles across Alaska, from the Chukchi Sea coast to Canada’s Yukon Territory – have had their wild character protected by a string of parks, preserves, and refuges that encompass many millions of acres.

In the mid-1970s I found the range’s wildness to be expressed “in wave after wave of knife-edged ridges that stretched to the horizon and beyond; in glacially carved basins that grew lush in mid-summer with the rich greens of tundra meadows and the rainbow hues of alpine wildflowers; in wolves, caribou, bears, and wolverines; in a largely unpeopled landscape where one could travel for days, perhaps even weeks, without seeing any obvious signs of humans.”

Though the Central Brooks Range stirred me, it wasn’t because the mountains were spectacular, at least in the way people ordinarily use the word. By Alaskan standards, they’re mostly ordinary hills (though there are some notable exceptions, for instance the Arrigetch Peaks and Mount Doonerak, the latter discussed in more detail below). Most of the mountains top out below five thousand feet; and their comparatively gentle snow- and ice-free slopes can be ascended without any mountain-climbing expertise or technical gear. But that was part of their appeal:

“In midsummer you could walk among the range’s high places in jeans and short-sleeved jersey without worrying about avalanches or crevasses or falling off cliff faces. And from the top of almost any of those hills, you could spin your body 360 degrees and see nothing but other mountains and river valleys, stretching without end. I had never seen – or imagined – such vast, open spaces with an acutely primordial feel, as if I were somehow transported to a distant epoch before machines and cities, pencils and maps. Before humans.” I’d spent time in Arizona’s deserts, the Grand Canyon, and the Rocky Mountains, but none of them matched this.

Who knows; if I’d spent my first northern summers in the Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains or Alaska Range I may have been smitten in a similar way by them. But I have since spent time in both those alpine wilderness areas (especially the Denali region, which also has a special place in my heart) and other enthralling landscapes. And still I sense that for me there’s a magic to the Brooks Range other places don’t have. I suppose the reasons that we come to passionately love a particular place can be as mysterious as why we fall deeply in love with a certain person.

Thinking back, there were other reasons the Central Brooks Range quickly became a special place to me: it’s where I saw my first grizzly bear, first heard the howling of wolves, first witnessed the northern lights. And it’s where I began to recover the deeper sense of wild wonder I’d once known as a boy. This place, more than any other I had known (or would come to know) stirred old, buried understandings of my connection to, and place within, the wider, wilder world.

Of course I’m hardly alone in sensing the magic that the Central Brooks Range holds. The Nunamiut Eskimos have understood the power of this place for generations, and long ago found it manifested in the legendary giant, Aiyagomahala, who lived near the headwaters of the Alatna River and created both the Nunamiut people and, with his glove, the Arrigetch Peaks, “fingers of the hand, extended.” Today, as in the past, the Nunamiut also sense it in the region’s caribou, which in many ways shape their lives. Bob Marshall certainly found the landscape to be wondrous and shared much of what he experienced in Alaska’s Wilderness.

John Kauffman, too, fell under the range’s spell. The leader of a National Park Service planning team, Kauffman was assigned to study the Central and Western Brooks Range in the early 1970s and determine what portions of those areas should be protected as parkland. In the wake of my solo trek, I knew I had to learn more about the efforts that led to Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. What I discovered is woven into Part 3 of Changing Paths. And Kauffman plays a central role.

In the weeks he spent there, Kauffman became captivated not only by the landscape’s marvels, but the immensity of the place. Later he would write, “the most critical resource was size, spaciousness itself. . . . With awe and dread we realized that this was America’s last big chunk of raw wilderness, the last land of solitude. There would never be any more. . . . Somehow, the nation would have to make this last remnant do, forever, what the whole American wilderness had done to challenge and mold and temper and inspire us as a people and nation.”

When deciding how Gates of the Arctic should be developed, Kauffman’s planning team decided to follow Marshall’s advice: do nothing. There would be no roads, trails, campgrounds, or other visitor amenities. In Kauffman’s vision, Gates would be “a black belt park. Not for neophytes, it would be at the ascetic end of a spectrum of national parks in Alaska that would range from the comforts of hotels and cruise ships to the most basic of wilderness survival.”

My solo trek had its share of miseries: hordes of mosquitoes, badly blistered feet, aching muscles, drenching rains. And there were plenty of times when I was more focused on daily chores, mundane routines, and backpacking logistics (and worries) than the beauty and mystery of the place. But the deeper I moved into the wilderness, the more I shed my city skin and opened to its enchantments. One memorable day I ascended a rocky spine near the Arctic Divide. Returned to camp, I later wrote in my journal, “There are moments on this ridge walk when my heart sings. I don’t know how else to put it: I feel bursts of joy that I can’t explain. Nothing specific seems to trigger these moments; no special insights or revelations accompany them. It is, I think, the entirety of this day, this trip. My spirit has been stirred and lifted by this glorious landscape, Marshall’s presence, and memories that stretch back a quarter century. In a receptive mood, I am touched by wildness – and perhaps my own wildness responds.”

The trek was enlivened by several encounters. Two described in Part 3 I’ll mention here. One involved Mount Doonerak, in Marshall’s words “a towering, black, unscalable-looking giant” that both wowed him and thwarted his efforts to climb it. Angling uphill from camp, I rounded one final bend in the terrain and was greeted “by the face of God. Or at least one of His more spectacular faces.

“Even after reading and rereading Marshall’s enthusiastic descriptions, I wasn’t prepared for such a landscape. Desolate, yet sublime. The word, the idea that keeps coming to mind, is transcendent. I’ve been lifted into an extraordinary realm. It’s not only Doonerak that overwhelms me, but also its neighbor, Hanging Glacier Mountain, and the chasm, Bombardment Creek, that separates and connects the two. A deep gash between looming, steep-sided rock walls three thousand or more feet high, this narrow gorge is unlike any I’ve seen. . . . It’s as if I’ve transported to the edge of the Alps or Himalayas and stand at the entryway to what Galen Rowell called ‘the throne room of the mountain gods.’”

There’s a lot more, but you get the idea.

The other encounter was with singing wolves. In part, my remembrance of the meeting reads, “The rain is falling harder now, but I hardly notice. Or care. The wolf songs last a minute or two, but resonate much longer. This is what I dream about: to share the wilderness with howling wolves.” Again there’s more (of course), followed by this reflection:

“Throughout this trip, my most memorable times have come as moments of surprise: sudden (even if anticipated) encounters with the Valley of Precipices, Doonerak, grizzlies, a bear skull, now wolves. Animals have been the best example of this. For all the looking and “hunting” [with binoculars] I’ve done, the wildlife I’ll remember most have come to me. It seems I’m being given new opportunities to let go of expectations and, at the same time, be open to possibilities. Both ideas, and the practice of them, have become important guideposts in my middle years.”

Even while I traversed one of the continent’s greatest remaining wildlands and reflected upon my personal relationship with wilderness (and more generally, wild nature) a growing number of people were debating the idea of wilderness that’s guided the preservation of lands and waters in the U.S. and elsewhere. Only years later would I learn about this largely academic dispute and be pointed toward a book that explores The Great New Wilderness Debate. I include a discussion of that debate, and what I’ve learned about it, in Part 3 of Changing Paths, then offer these thoughts: “I still have much to learn about this new wilderness debate, but it seems a desirable and necessary discussion. The ideas [expressed by those engaged in the debate] are helping me to better crystallize my own, evolving credo: let us protect and celebrate the Earth’s remaining wilderness areas and their inhabitants, human and otherwise. And let us celebrate and honor the wild nature that is all around us and within us, all the time.”

This leads to my final reflections for this week’s posting. In Chapter 19, “Middle-Aged Discoveries,” I consider the differences embodied by “wilderness” and “wildness,” a discussion informed by the wisdom of Gary Snyder, Jack Turner, and other American “nature writers.” I also share some observations about the nearby wild of my adopted home, Anchorage, where I eventually settled after changing careers, from geology to journalism (eventually to end up a nature writer and something of an activist, an evolution traced in this section of the book):

“I’m constantly reminded that wildness is all around us, all the time, even in the city. It’s just that most of us humans don’t notice the ‘wild side’ of our busy urban lives (some, it’s true are simply trying to survive their urban lifestyles, which leaves little, if any, opportunities for wild connections). Of course in many a metropolis you have to look hard to find even hints of the wild behind the elaborate layers of human construct that shield us from the rest of nature. Anchorage’s juxtaposition of malls and moose, brewhouses and bears, libraries and loons makes it easier to notice urban wildness here than in cities like Los Angeles or Tucson or even Lewiston, Maine, all places that I’ve lived. This city, more than any other, has opened my eyes and enlarged my awareness of wild nature in a way that wilderness couldn’t.” Though it seems that for me, entering the wilderness was a necessary step to (re)discovering that larger, ever-present wildness.

I’ll end with this observation and question, also from Chapter 19: “In recent years I’ve come to believe strongly that this sense of connection, this love for wild nature, is a crucial part of our humanity. It’s alive in us when we’re born, no matter where that is. The question, then, is how do we nurture our wildness, rather than subdue and tame it?”

Some additional questions to consider:
  • In Part 3, I also present a lengthy discussion on the importance – even the necessity – of solitude. What role, if any, does solitude play in your life? Do you consider it essential to becoming intimate with wildness? Why or why not?
  • Are you familiar with “the great new wilderness debate”? What is your perspective on the American idea – and ideal – of wilderness?
  • What wilderness (or other landscape) is especially magical to you? And why?


Bill Yake said...

Hi Bill, Your evocation of urban wilderness brought a smile and memory of these Greg Brown lyrics:


Well, yes, I could stay home, read a book or two,
Try to get a little bit better at some of these bad things I do.
But the night it is young; so am I for a while,
So I put on my hat and coat and pants and my boots and smile.
And I'm a gonna go

Downtown, downtown tonight,
I'm a gonna go all around the town, check out all the sights,
I will be back in the mornin', feelin' bad or good,
Well, I do what I want, and I don't do what I should.

Well, some people tell me that they love the mountains best,
Far as I can see it's just one big wilderness.
I've seen squirrels writin' tickets, dolphins drivin' cars,
Blowfish blowin' tubas, grizzly bears in the bars.
And I'm a gonna go


Well now if you've ever checked it out, you know just what I mean,
There's always a few surprises in that same old scene.
You might meet some fella who can really blow the horn,
Make you glad for a change you done got born.
Don't ya wanna go


Yes, I might get lucky, run into my friend, Jane,
Walk to her apartment in the shiny city rain.
Put on a little record; I get so long and tall,
I wish I was the wallpaper; Jane could be the wall.
And I'm a gonna go


Yeah and when those lights come up, so soon, so soon,
We might sit and play some music in that trashed-out livin' room.
Keep playin' that music 'til the dawn's early light,
Laugh like no one's business,
Man ain't that the life.
And I'm a gonna go


Have you ever known the magic hour just before the dawn?
When the mornin' is still sleeping, but the night is not yet gone.
And you're walkin' home from some little joint with someone you love,
With the moon and stars and the bells and birds all ringin' up above.
Don't ya wanna go, etc.

Am reminded that we traveled to Portland (Oregon) yesterday to (among other things) watch Werner Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" in 3D. Now those artists (near Chauvet Cave in SE France ~32,000 ago) must have known the wild in a truly intimate way. How odd and interesting that we travel to an urban center to view and be inspired, by way of high technology, images inspired by the wild in deep, deep history.

Anonymous said...

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread,
places to play in and pray in,
where nature may heal and give strength
to body and soul alike.”
~ John Muir ~
For me, this says a lot. The natural world is a healing place when it's respected and nurtured in our lives. It is the ultimate reality of this world, as hard as we, as people try to cover it over. Wilderness is an intimate place as it is completely honest. We can only love it as it is. Should we not also love ourselves the same? That gives me strength and it makes me want to go out more, to learn more, to feel more.

Bill Sherwonit said...

Bill, thanks for sending along the lyrics to Greg Brown's "Downtown." I'd say his taste for urban wildness is quite different than my own, but I love many of his images and especially the verse that refers to the "magic hour":

Have you ever known the magic hour just before the dawn?
When the mornin' is still sleeping, but the night is not yet gone.
And you're walkin' home from some little joint with someone you love,
With the moon and stars and the bells and birds all ringin' up above.

I don't spend nearly as much time outdoors at night as I'd like to, especially in winter. I have some wonderful nighttime memories, of owls, northern lights, brilliantly starry night skies, campfires with friends, the singing of songs and reading of poems, on and on . . .

And Anonymous, thanks for sharing that great comment by John Muir. I agree with both you and Muir, about the healing power of nature.

Thanks to you both.

Wayne said...

In trying to wrap what is left of my brain around the concepts of wilderness and wildness, I thought of a recent May afternoon in a partly frozen Anchorage wetland, watching one of our favorite species, the Lesser Sandhill Crane, foraging for another of our favorite species, the Wood Frog. While it could hardly be considered wilderness on the scale of the Brooks Range, that little spot and the slice of nature playing out before us - the crane intent on its quest, coming closer and closer - was as important to the quality of my life, day to day, as my infrequent forays into more remote areas. These things are important to me. In my view of the natural world, things are not going so well. So it is important to me to find some small, beautiful pieces that work, or are allowed to work, amongst all the madness. Not wilderness but still wild. And important.

Bill Sherwonit said...

Hey Wayne,
I also remember that wetland and its sandhill cranes and wood frogs (how could I forget?). What a treat it was, to share their company (and yours too). It was a wildly wonderful -- or wonderfully wild -- afternoon. Part of the magic was to be standing along the meadow's margins and have one of the cranes approach us so closely while hunting. It seems the cranes must have been aware of our presence, but they made no protest and didn't seem disturbed by us at all.

This is what I too have learned to better appreciate and celebrate, the "wondrous wild" within our own communities. For all its faults, Anchorage is blessed with an abundance of wild places and wild critters. Thanks for reminding me about that remarkable May afternoon, which we had the good fortune to share.

Bob Pyle said...

Nicely stated, gents, both of you.

Alyson said...

I enjoy solitude in the wilderness for the obvious reason that I notice more. During a trip down the Noatak River some years ago with friends our evenings were spent under a mosquito net deep in conversation, but I remember nothing of what we talked about. I remember the mornings I spent wandering solo listening to bird song and watching the light dance on the river.
The less obvious reason is that, with people, the focus is inevitably on human affairs: what is right and fair and good. This is as it should be, it is important, but it is the antithesis of wildness. Wolves don’t think about right or wrong any more than the cat does when it bats the mouse to exhaustion. This is the wildness my soul longs for for when I hear wolf song, to live without worry or obligation or duty or even kindness; to live for the taste of berries in my mouth, nothing more. When I hear the wolf, I know he is there and that I am not, and it is not him, but my own soul, I am missing.

Bill Sherwonit said...

Thanks, Alyson, for your recollections and reflections. Good stuff! As I think I've mentioned elsewhere, I too like to often go alone into the larger, wilder world because the nature -- and quality -- of my experience (like yours) is different when I'm by myself. Even in the company of a single person, I usually don't pay the same attention to my surroundings; the larger world becomes a backdrop for human concerns. Although I'm reminded, by Wayne's comment above, that it's not always so, my deepest and most memorable experiences in the wilds generally occur when I'm alone.

I also like your musings that moving into wildness removes us from human concerns about what is "right and fair and good." Maybe that's similar to my notion of leaving human judgment behind. When we're truly in our own wildness, we're more likely to be "in the present moment" and out of our heads and thus beyond "worry, or obligation" and the rest. Paradoxically, I think that is also when we're most likely to chose or follow a path of "right action," if that makes sense. It's not easy to explain such things.

Alyson said...

Thanks Bill. It feels true to me what you said, that the more we deepen our connection with the wild and our own wild nature,the more we act from a place of reverence for both, not necessarily because it is right thing(though I think it is), but because it is who we are.

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